Adam Savage, the former co-host of Discovery Channel’s popular television show MythBusters, is accustomed to testing the limits of human ingenuity. Do you remember when he and his team of tinkerers tested the tensile strength of duct tape by suspending a car with it? After that episode, I never looked at my ratty duct tape the same way.
Since MythBusters ended earlier this year, Savage has had some extra time on his hands. Which in the case of an avid designer and maker like Savage means spending three days hunkered down at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco building his latest creation. He called it the “Pedal-Powered Beest.” And the thing does look beastly, except for the bright-red All Star sneakers pinned to its 12 feet.
Savage’s Beest was inspired by the kinetic sculptures, known as Strandbeests, invented by Dutch artist Theo Jansen. Jansen’s structures are typically powered by the wind and made of PVC, but Savage wanted to build a human-powered version, as part of Exploratorium’s After Dark: BYOBeest exhibit, which celebrates Jansen and his creations.
Last night just outside the museum, fans huddled together in the cold to eagerly watch Savage’s 2.5-meter-tall machine crawl along the sidewalk for the first time. At the center of the truss system was the guts of a former bicycle and just below a tiny bucket seat for Savage to propel the contraption using his legs. Even though a few shoes slipped off in the shuffle, the crowd roared louder with every step that the man-machine took forward.
We were there to capture all of the action and talk to Savage about the project. You can watch the whole thing on our Facebook Live Video below (our interview with Savage is after the demo and questions from the audience).
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An important part of the project was letting visitors get a sneak peak at Savage’s design and build process, especially the setbacks, and how he was able to overcome them (or most of them).
“This entire project is a reflection of myself,” Savage told us, adding that he believes in a maker culture that incubates failure as a necessary step toward success. “I’m not a genius. I’m not smarter than you. I’m just a guy who’s interested in doing something, and I persevered, and I got a machine out of it,” he added.
Nice kicks! Photo: Theresa Chong
Savage explained that although he and his team had already pre-welded triangle sections and prepared custom made Teflon washers, it was still a challenge to assemble the structure. Midway through the demo, he climbed on the upper part of the machine to power it from above, instead of leaning on the seat.
“I didn’t know if it would support my weight. I didn’t realize that I had put the wheels in the right orientation to be able to ride it. But I did. And, that’s really cool,” he said.
Asked if he considered his machine a kind of robot, or perhaps a cyborg, he said: “It must be a cyborg because it uses me as a power system, so it’s more like a really elaborate wheelchair.”
Theresa Chong is a video host and multimedia technology journalist based in Palo Alto, Calif. As on-camera talent, she has performed science experiments for “Discovery News,” explained how virtual reality works for USA Today, and interviewed Adam Savage for IEEE Spectrum. She has written about wearables for Scientific American and travel tech for Architectural Digest. With a DSLR, GoPro, and green screen by her side, she has produced digital videos of robots, driverless cars, and 3D printing. She earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and in a prior life she worked as a civil engineer.